THE first butterfly on the wing this spring was a comma (Polygonia c-album) seen in the afternoon of March 15, a bright sunny day in South Hertfordshire, with temperatures touching 15°C and above average for that period of year. This sole specimen spent a lot of time sunning itself on rhododendron and roses and took a good deal of interest in a freshly mown lawn.

Last year it was a peacock butterfly (Aglais io) seen around the same time in March and, as I recall, on an equally warm, bright and sunny day. Comma and peacock are two native British butterflies, which overwinter in the adult (imago) stage. Just days before, this comma would have been in a comatose condition, hibernating inside hollow trees or within log piles, so don’t rush to remove those old trees and make sure you leave deadwood in situ. And don’t be tempted to dismantle and take away woodpiles in winter, even if you need the firewood because comma butterflies have an even greater need. 

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Not much is documented about the comma’s winter slumber because so few are actually found in winter. However, sites where commas are known to hibernate include honeysuckle tangles and coppiced hazel. The reason why comatose commas with wings closed are so difficult to find in their hibernating state is all down to camouflage. By using a combination of wing shape and form and pattern and colouration of the wings’ under-surface, commas can mimic dead leaves. This is clearly a clever evolutionary trait and posture for a butterfly that chooses to overwinter inside broadleaf deciduous woodland.

However, when it comes to the pattern and colouration of the wing’s upper surface then this butterfly ranks with the best of British. Comma comprises a rich, rusty-red orange background colour marked with black and brown, which early lepidopterists called ‘fulvous’, an antique word meaning ‘rusty-red orange’. The comma’s highly scalloped (jagged) wing margins allow even the novice not to confuse a comma with a small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) to which the comma is closely related.

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Hibernation has clearly taken its toll on these spring-emerging specimens, which have a rather ragged and ‘anaemic’ appearance. And they compare unfavourably by the pristine condition of comma butterflies that will emerge later in the year from the two broods occurring in April/May and July/August.